Because of a Red Haired Girl
Charlie Brown had that little red haired girl who won his heart and starred in one of the recurring themes of that classic "Peanuts" comic strip.
This isn't about her.
This little red haired girl went to school where I did, both of us attending the second grade in an old yellow brick school building that smelt of glue, dust, chalk, and kids. This girl had tangled, wild hair that poked out in all directions. Her clothes were old and poor. Sometimes they, and she, was dirty. The little boys and girls in our school marked her as someone to be teased, tormented, and isolated... and that is exactly what happened. They called her names -- most of which, blessedly, I have forgotten. I knew it was wrong to join in their games and make that little red haired girl's life miserable, but I did it anyway. I briefly toyed with trying to speak up for her, but I didn't have the nerve.
Today, I am a successful minister in a successful ministry. I have a lovely wife and two kids who are better than I could have hoped. They are good looking, well behaved, clean, and popular. They are everything that little girl wasn't. I go on good vacations and have the money to contribute lavishly to mission works and charity... but I am powerless to find that girl and apologize. They didn't publish books of photos for second graders back then and I would not recognize her name if I heard it. Neither it -- nor she -- was important enough to me for any of that "name remembering" stuff.
I thought of her again this week.
My son in law, Josh Graves (detectivesofthedivine.blogspot.com), asked me to go with him to speak to some at risk teens in downtown Detroit. As soon as I found that my schedule allowed it I agreed to go. I knew his college roommate (Mike Robinson) was a social worker and counselor there, but that's about it. I thought I'd tag along, listen to Josh, visit for an hour, and be gone. Nope. The day we were to drive down Josh stuck his head in my office and asked if I could go early and eat lunch with the kids. I said yes and then he said, "You know you're supposed to give them a speech? Not a long one -- maybe fifteen minutes?" I had no idea, but decided I could pull it off. When we got to the facility and saw the locks and fences I found out that this was a place where at risk kids -- those who have already been through the court system and been found guilty of at least one crime. Here, at this school, they are given the chance to learn skills to survive lives that are broken -- shattered and tossed away, often through the fault of others.
It was career day and Josh and I were to give speeches on why we were ministers. I couldn't think of anything that would interest this group less. Here I was, an old white guy, and there they were. One's mother recently died with AIDS. Another, right beside her, lost her mother to a crack overdose a few months ago. Some had fathers who died during crimes but most had no fathers. One's mother was a stripper. They were fifteen or sixteen and had learned fear, mistrust, and anger. They knew pain, abandonment, and lies better than most of us know the books of the Bible. Josh and I gave our little speeches. They seemed to go well. I got the kids laughing and happy -- a few of the boys and girls even came up and hugged me. They told us their names and that is where I heard from Andrea.
I won't tell you Andrea's story. That's for her to do one day. But she sat there ramrod straight, determined to get this last chance right. She said, with pride, that she wanted to get her high school diploma and then become a doctor. When I offered to help her get into college at Ohio State (where I am on adjunct staff and have lots of connections) but she declined, informing me that she intended to go to Yale. There was no irony in her reply. She was friendly, but tough and ready to prove she wasn't something to throw away.
After four or five hours, Josh and I drove out of the war zone of inner Detroit where you have to order your fast food through bullet proof glass and it is given to you in a lazy susan rounder where you never have access to the individual across the counter. We left behind the kids, their wonderful social workers, and the fences with barbed wire wrapped around the top. We'd left them our addresses and told them we would come down anytime they needed us and we would use our connections to help them in any way possible for as long as they wanted to stay in touch with us. We meant it. Josh meant it because he is a wise and kind young man with a huge heart for the hurt and dispossessed.
I meant it because I failed that little red haired girl 42 years ago and I wasn't going to fail these kids -- especially someone like Andrea. I asked her what else she wanted to do -- other than going to Yale and becoming a doctor. She smiled a beautiful smile and said, "I want to be a poet. I think I could be a good poet." I told her I thought so, too. "I believe in you," I said, "and anything you need from me, you've got. I don't think you're going to need much of my help, but know that I am there for you anyway."
Because God loves young black ladies with nightmare homes and smelly little red haired girls and ministers who have no right to know Him, but who are saved by Him anyway.